AS a devolved matter, employment law in Northern Ireland has always has a few quirks and departures from GB as the general roadmap on parity pathway was followed (more of less) quite closely.
But looking back on 2023, as the year winds to an end, the divergence in employment rights between the two jurisdictions has become more of a yawning gap than an idiosyncratic departure.
Keeping abreast of these differences can be a tracking nightmare, and while some differences could be categorised as technical or fringe, others are substantive in nature and as such a working knowledge is needed in order to avoid costly pitfalls.
In an unusual move in GB during 2023, several new employment rights were established with a view to fleshing them out in regulations early in 2024.
These covered areas as diverse as flexible working through to tips and gratuities, and what made them unusual was the statutory vehicle, namely Private Members’ Bills (PMBs).
PMBs rarely see the statue books. But what we saw in 2023 was a de facto Employment Bill in GB coming into effect by a rather circuitous route because the PMB had ‘Government backing’. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, we sit and watch as the list of differences grows (around 35, give or take, at the last count).
Some might say that this is devolution in action, or devolution inaction if you will, whilst others see parity as the consistency new external investors crave and as such regulatory alignment should be the order of the day.
Others will point to costly errors in GB that were not replicated in Northern Ireland, such as the employment tribunal fees debacle or the removal of the ban on agency workers covering for striking staff as salutary lessons in ideological legislation.
Recently I wrote about the ongoing policy vacuum created by a malfunctioning sat nav due to a lack of Government and employment law here. This exemplifies the problems being faced by all stakeholders, be they employers with a presence in both jurisdictions, or a UK wide trade union.
In Northern Ireland you need one year’s service as an employee to claim unfair dismissal, but in GB it is two, and whilst this may be perceived as a more pro-employee right in this jurisdiction, there is an ever-growing set of new rights in GB that do not apply here thanks to the aforementioned raft of rights enacted during the course of this year.
Of course, being different has always been used as either a sword or a shield in this jurisdiction, depending on your want.
Our French neighbours have a phrase for that - “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”. True or false? You decide.
:: Mark McAllister is director of employment relations services at the Labour Relations Agency NI